Forrige uke inntok Katya García-Antón sjefsstolen ved Office for Contemporary Art (OCA) etter Marta Kuzmas åtte år ved institusjonen. Kuzmas periode var preget av stor kunstfaglig suksess internasjonalt, men også av kritikk for dårlig økonomistyring og manglende åpenhet rundt organisasjonens virke i Norge.
Om det er det dårlige samarbeidsklimaet mellom den tidligere direktøren og oppdragsgiverne i Utenriks- og Kulturdepartementet som er årsaken til at García-Antón rent personlighetsmessig fremstår som Kuzmas rake motsats, er vanskelig å si. Men det er tydelig at styret denne gangen har valgt en sindig person som ønsker å ta seg god tid til lytte til ulike stemmer før avgjørelser tas. På tross av gode diplomatiske anlegg, er den nye OCA-sjefen klar på at institusjonen har budsjettmessige og institusjonelle utfordringer. Hun mener allikevel at disse problemene ikke er et særnorsk fenomen, og at mye kan løses gjennom å skape en mer åpen organisasjon.
García-Antón har også på rent faglig nivå interessert seg for forholdet mellom mikro- og makrostukturer. Det har ligget der helt fra hun som ung jobbet som primatolog i jungelen i Brasil, og frem til kurateringen av den første palestinske biennalen Qalandyia International Biennial i 2012. I dette intervjuet forteller hun om hvordan hun ønsker å bygge videre på OCAs faglige suksess, om interessen for en generasjon av eldre norske kunstnere som aldri fikk noen internasjonal eksponering og om planene for å åpne opp OCA. Intervjuet trykkes i dets opprinnelige språkform.
Congrats with your new job and welcome to Oslo! Why do you think the board selected you for this job?
Well, it is hard for me to say, but I imagine that some of the arguments that the board found interesting, was what drew me to the post and what I feel I can contribute with here. On the one hand, it was the uniqueness of OCA as an institution. The fact that it has the function to contribute to the internationalization of the Norwegian art scene, at the same time as it has an exhibition space. That is quite unique when it comes to similar peer institutions. On the other hand, OCA is not just a funder, but also a researcher and a producer of ideas. Standing behind the Norwegian art scene internationally, this fact creates great legitimacy.
How much did you know about the conflicts around OCA and the challenges they where facing upon your arrival to Norway?
What I knew was only through informal channels. I heard a lot about the tensions and challenges through peers and colleagues of mine. I knew there where things to be worked on, resolved and explored. But it is important to recognize that many of these things are not specific necessarily to Norway. It is not unusual to find such conflicts and therefore not extraordinary to deal with them. This is super-important to keep in mind.
Do you have access to an English version of the report from Telemarksforskning, the report that evaluated OCA’s practice last year?
Yes I have a translation. I think it is important for an institution to have regular analyses, to be able to look back and to see what its strong points are. I also think that many of the issues it raises are important issues. There are a lot of things from the report that we want to take into consideration. To give you one example: one of the critiques was raised against the long lasting periods the international jury had. It is common practice that jury members leaves after 3 years or so, so to put OCA’s practice in line with that is absolutely valid. Other elements that we are looking into too, among many more, is how to make the exhibition space more dynamic and prevalent.
Are you obliged to integrate the conclusions from the report in your further work?
The way I interpret it, is that these are positive recommendations. And there are a lot of things that we are integrating into our strategic thinking already. Amongst them a fine-tuning of the strategy planning, issues relating to our organizational structure, how we deal with the budgets and how the working methods of OCA actually functions. We are also investigating ways of dynamising the exhibition space, and how to reach out to new collaboration partners in Oslo and elsewhere in Norway. We would also like to strengthen the communication paths we use, in order to facilitate access to and understanding of what OCA can provide to the art communities. I won’t jump into conclusions, but we obviously have to explore how to further enhance OCA’s general activities, in Norway particularly, at the same time as we continue to produce really successful Venice presentations. That is a challenge.
When talking about Venice, what are your plans for 2015?
Apart from moving as fast as possible, there is very little I can say right now. But to give you an idea, collaborations is something I would like to address both in a national and international context.
You have a diverse background in academic research and curating. In general, how will you describe your approach to and interest in contemporary art?
To answer that question I have to tell you a little bit about my background. I started out as a biologist, not as an art historian. I specialized in primate behaviour and spent two years in the forest, one in Brazil and one in Sierra Leone, looking at “cultural transmission” in different groups of primates. When I look at how I work these days and what interests me, certain spirits and dynamics come from those early days. In the same ways as studying primates in the jungle, as a curator, you are looking at ecological factors and cultural transmissions and how the two things balance each other. The desire to always look at the bigger picture, to balance your self between a micro and a macro way of looking at things, has been important for me. Some of the institutions that I have worked in have also made great impact on my practice. ICA in London is one example; an institution with a multidisciplinary approach. They had special departments for live art performances and talks, covering a wide range of subjects. Working there, we where always in dialogue with the other departments, as they where all forged together. Later, I also went off to work in IKON Birmingham – an institution well known for their strong educational program and their outreach to the local community. So I suppose these three components has somehow identified and defined the way in which I work today; how art and society come together, the idea of multidisciplinary and the interest in the public space.
How does this translate into a more concrete definition of your curatorial interests?
Well, I’m very interested in exploring given histories, and in challenging certain thinking about art history and how it is being transmitted. I’m also interested in looking at alternative histories – forgotten histories. Art strategies that may help to dig up such side stories, and look at different forms of perception through fiction, are also of my interest.
How will this interest appear in OCA’s practice?
For sure in the programming and research that we do. Norway has an interesting art scene, and I’m very curious to find out what is less visible for the international art scene. I’m interested in knowing about older artists that have not been showcased so much internationally. But my eye is going to be a diversified eye.
Will OCA’s core objectives, as defined online at www.oca.no, still remain?
OCA’s former objectives are still relevant. At this point, I’m not in the position to make massive changes, and I think it is important to build on the successes of OCA from the past. But aside from that, the key goal for me is the question of contact, accessibility and communication nationally. I want to approach the different art communities in Norway, to get to know them and to be able to understand their anxieties, dreams and aspirations, their frustrations and challenges. I want to understand and engage in some of the critique OCA has experienced in the past, to create a situation where people see OCA, the team and myself as discussion partners and not only as decision makers. Obviously, we are not able to please everybody and meet everybody’s expectations. But at least we are able to create long term discussion and by this increase the chances of succeeding in our mission.
Some of the critique that has been raised against OCA concerns the balance between its different activities. How will OCA’s activities be balanced against each other under your direction?
In terms of making sure that international curators look at Norway, even more actively than before, OCA needs to be attractive and a respected international partner. If I was to think back at the image me and my peers had of OCA when I was a curator living outside Norway, we all had an incredibly high regard of the intellectual acuity in OCA’s programming. Whenever you saw the OCA logo, you knew that is was going to be an important contribution to international discourse. This sort of thing used to be very strategic and very strong in OCA’s practice in the past, and needs to be maintained in the future. I think this is the big asset that OCA has been constructing in years, and from my opinion, what made OCA so successful internationally. However I will seek to complement this with a greater collaboration locally as outlined before, emphasising the role of OCA as a discussion partner for all art communities.
Both OCA’s core objectives, and the balancing of the different activities, have been criticized for being too ambitious in relations to OCA’s financial situation. Is it possible to stay with the OCA objectives within the frames of the current budget situation?
There are challenges. One thing is that you ask me what my input wants to be. The other is how to match that within the current budget situation. I think there are a lot of things that can be done, which do not necessarily involve a budget situation. Again, if we are talking about the critique of OCA, I think that a lot can be done in how we communicate things to people and how we engage with the different art communities in Norway. Another thing is how we continue with the program and the Venice biennial.
I would like to be able to do more exhibitions in our exhibition space to address a variety of research interests and to reach out to different kinds of audiences, but also for the purpose of investigating collaborations. One way to address the budgetary challenge is to consider intellectually resources and material resources together. But it is a demanding project. There are a lot of expectations in terms of how we address a more diversified public and how we program and activate the space. And obviously, to activate the space, we need to do more things and this means that we again need more money to be able to do an important project for Venice. I’m working to find some solutions, but I don’t have any miracle answers I can give you right now.
In continuing OCA’s discursive and intellectual approach to contemporary art, how do you plan to overcome the challenge of communicating such a practice to the OCA funders (KUD/UD), the broader art scene and the general public?
Again, I think the key here is communication. I don’t think anybody is actually challenging OCA’s core mission. OCA’s core mission is to be an important motor in order to secure interests in the contemporary art scene in Norway, to catalyse Norwegian artist’s participation in the international art scene abroad. I think where we can improve, is in how we relate and transmit the tools that we have in our disposal. It is important for me to get to know everybody, not just in Oslo but also in Bergen, Tromsø, Trondheim etc., and to be attentive for feedback about the history, present and future of OCA. To get all of these opinions, will make it possible for me to build a more comprehensive strategy for the future. Secondly, I want to have a very strong contact with a variety of art communities. Not only artists and curators, but also journalists and critics, funders; all of those that are stakeholders in OCA’s mission. And this aspect also relates to the communication style; how do we make it possible for all art communities to feel that there is immediate access to what we do? I think one of the things that I would like to put in action is a series of open days, some of which could happen in Oslo and some beyond Oslo, where the goal would be to gather together people, and speak to them in a very informal way. I might run a series of workshops, or include artists, curators and practitioners who have benefited from OCA’s work in the past and ask for their feedback. The purpose would be to facilitate access to information and to create situations where we can receive feedback to what we already have been doing. Hopefully, such an initiative will address lots of the mentioned issues.
Critical voices have accused OCA of supporting a certain type of art. Is it a strategic necessity for an organization like OCA to promote a narrow selection of artists, in order to create an interesting institution for the international art scene?
It is difficult for me to relate to the term «narrow down». But I ‘m aware of this comment, and I want to study in greater depths what kind of support OCA has been giving in the past to be able to understand it. My natural instinct would be to embrace as many types of activities as possible. But it is challenging to distribute resources such as funding and to cover everybody’s needs. People have to be aware that OCA’s role is to mediate between international organizations and Norwegian residents, and that we cannot tell international organizations what to do. What we can do is to excite international organizations, journalists and writers about what is going on, and my aim is to do as much of this as possible in a varied way as feasible. One of the most interesting in the Norwegian scene is precisely its diversity.
So it is possible to represent a diversified scene of contemporary art at the same time as creating a clear artistic profile for OCA internationally?
I do think it is. Quality has to be at the very top, but my ambition would be for that to happen.
Could you elaborate on how «quality» is defined in OCA’s work?
Obviously, «quality» is difficult to define. Everybody has a different opinion about what quality is and what the value of an artwork is. One needs to be aware of international discourse; quality would be an interesting contribution to, or even a challenge to such a discourse.
So at this point, what would you be interested in communicating internationally?
There are a lot of things about Norway and its history that people outside of Scandinavia are less informed about. OCA will try to communicate these histories and the diversity of practices represented by both older and younger generations.
What kind of histories are you referring to?
One example is the Kjartan Slettemark show at the National Museum, which I enjoyed tremendously; a show that I would like to see in bigger museums around the world. Internationally, a whole generation of Norwegian artists is not well known, and now is a very good time to communicate their work, since the art world in general is in the process of investigating and recuperating the forgotten generations.
So you are talking exclusively about fine art when referring to Norwegian histories?
Yes, but when you try to communicate the arts you would necessarily communicate macro histories as well. The emerging scene is often dealing with issues we are struggling with today, either political, economically or socially. Research about the oil industry, immigration, popular culture, and the position of women are feeding from specific dynamics in society. The micro and the macro are always related; things don’t happen out of a vacuum.
And in this context, do you see any challenges working in a state funded institution like OCA?
I think OCA is a great agent to be able to investigate all this kinds of situations. At the moment, OCA’s main challenge is related to the current situation, to be able to respond positively to past critique in order to grow, find new avenues for action within and beyond Norway, and by this to be able to serve Norwegian art communities in a better way.